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Another day, another credit rating downgrade

Thursday, August 29, 2013
Crain's Chicago Business
by Paul Merrion

Citing the state's "legislative paralysis" on pension reform, the credit rating of Cook County Forest Preserve District was lowered two notches Thursday, with a negative outlook.

The district's credit rating now stands at A1, same as Cook County, which Moody's Investors Service noted is governed by the same commissioners who oversee the Forest Preserve District. An A1 rating is four notches below Aaa, Moody's highest possible rating.

The Wall Street credit rating agency said the downgrade reflects growing pension liabilities as contributions by employees and the district fall short of the required amount to pay future benefits.

Since early June, Moody's has lowered the credit rating of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Chicago; Cook County; the City of Chicago; state universities; and the state of Illinois.

The Forest Preserve District's pension plan reported an unfunded liability of $100.6 million eight months ago, but Moody's said that using more conservative assumptions about interest rates and investment returns would put the pension liability at $244.8 million last year.

"The Forest Preserve District of Cook County, like other agencies, is a product of our local environment," Mark Thomas, the district's chief financial officer, said in a statement. "Every local taxing body is being affected by the pension crisis and the inability to act without state legislation — we are the latest casualty of the state's inaction."

"While we appreciate Moody's careful consideration of our financial position, we disagree with their decision to downgrade our rating to A1 from Aa2," he continued. "We believe that this double downgrade does not convey a complete understanding of the relationship between the Forest Preserve District and Cook County. It's also important to note that Moody's had strong praise for the Forest Preserves, citing our healthy financial operations, sound reserve levels, strong fiscal management, low debt burden and retained financial and operating flexibility.

"Nevertheless, Forest Preserve District and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle continues to urge the pension conference committee to work swiftly to address the state's pension systems so the General Assembly can turn its attention to local funds like the Forest Preserves that are in need of comprehensive pension reform."

The rating change affects about $188 million of the Forest Preserve District's general obligation debt.

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